Mano a Mano Against Poverty

Planting Seeds of Hope

Back in the 1960s, America declared a war on poverty. The government funneled millions into "community development" programs, recruited neighborhood enablers, financed jobs programs, and then, by the 1970s, realizing that poverty was the most tenacious of adversaries, pretty much gave up the effort. By the time the Reagan administration came around, it was widely assumed that poor people were poor because they wanted to be poor. Greed was in.

About five years ago, a callow young man from northern Florida decided he didn't believe that. He wanted to do something about poverty himself. With just the glimmer of an idea, Aaron Jackson traveled to Haiti's Port-au-Prince, hooked up with some like-minded Haitians, and established a home for street kids, which he subsequently financed with his earnings as a golf caddy. A simple, preposterous idea that, crazily enough, worked.

Since then, Jackson, a rangy, shaggy-haired 26-year-old who seems to embody, without the rhetorical flourishes, all the selfless idealism of the 1960s and Bobby Kennedy ("I dream things that never were and I say, 'Why not?' "), has brought his magic touch to other nations. His organization, Planting Peace, now sponsors, among others, a homeless shelter in Guatemala, a home for teenaged prostitutes in Ecuador, and a home for children with AIDS in Port-au-Prince's gritty Cité de Soleil (see www.plantingpeace.org). He has also almost single-handedly dewormed much of Haiti, where thousands of children die from malnourishment every year, largely because of digestive parasites.

How does Jackson do it? It's the polar opposite of the federal approach, with its block grants and Frankenstein bureaucracy. Jackson has quit his caddy job, of course, and Planting Peace now gets contributions from churches and synagogues. But the emphasis is still on "small scale, sustainable projects."

Jackson recently went to Cambodia and, predictably, left the seeds of a program behind.

"I've always been interested in Southeast Asia," Jackson says. "I wanted to possibly open up a home for children involved in the sex trade there. So I went there to see, you know, what was up. We originally wanted to fly straight into Cambodia, but it was $3,000 cheaper per ticket to fly into Thailand and just bus it over the border to the capital, Phnom Penh. One of the cities along the way — about three days on the bus from Thailand — is Sihanoukville, a beautiful coastal city that has a lot of tourism.

"It was just me and this guy I went to high school with, Matthew Chambliss. He was on the golf team with me, but, like, we hadn't spoken at all since high school. He heard about some of the things I was doing and asked if he could help out. I told him I was thinking about going to Cambodia, and he said he was in.

"So the first day we're in Sihanoukville, we check into the hotel and Matt's hanging out in the room. I decide I'm going to go out and get some lunch. As soon as I get to a place, I like to figure out what the deal is. I like to get into the underground and talk to people. This woman serving me lunch started telling me about — she called them 'tree people' — people who live under the trees. This town is covered with beach chairs, and there are people who come sit by the ocean. These people were living under trees! I had to meet them immediately.

"I tried to do this hand-talking thing I do, where I try to communicate, trying to figure out, you know, what their deal is. Finally, a kid walked over and translated for me. I just started asking, 'Is there anything I can do to help you?'

"Most of them were amputees, hurt by land mines. Cambodia has a huge land mine problem. People lose limbs all the time. These people were homeless and basically had their children go out to the beaches and beg the tourists for money for food. But this is monsoon season, and there are no tourists.

"Another kid came over to see what was going on — there was a big group gathered around by now to see this random American here asking all these questions. This kid said his family had a house with eight rooms, basically an eight-bedroom hotel, they would rent for one dollar per room for each day.

"So it worked out beautifully. Within one hour of talking to them, all these tree people had housing. I cut a check for the entire year; it came to something like $2,900. That included $50 extra, like a tip for making it happen so fast.

"And these people, they needed food, case management — the kids need school, which is free in Cambodia, but there's no agency to make sure they go. We decided to start a shelter right there. Matt said he'd stay there and run it for a while.

"We're giving the amputees jobs. A lot of them only have one arm, but they can still pick up trash and work in reforestation there. If they can't work, we'll give them a little bit of money. One man had legs literally as thin as my thumbs all the way up and down. He had polio as a kid. He dragged himself around, that's the only way he could move. He asked for money to see a doctor. You know how much he needed to see the Cambodian doctor? Five bucks.

"This is the fastest Planting Peace has ever gotten a shelter up and running, but that's just how I like to do things. I don't like to wait for red tape or try to raise money, then do it. I just like to go there and start doing things, and it works out.

"These people, they told me tourists pass there every day. Nobody ever just thought to ask, 'Is there anything I can do to help you?' "

Pac Man U

Hear that giant sucking sound? That's the sound of Nova Southeastern University swallowing the Museum of Art/Fort Lauderdale. The two tax-exempt entities painted the shift last month as a "merger." But upon further prodding from Tailpipe, NSU President Ray Ferrero said that henceforth, the museum's finances will be reported as those of a Nova "division" in the school's annual report.

At a news conference to announce the deal, the white-haired Ferrero, dressed in a dapper seersucker suit, assured reporters that the museum's financials will still be "very transparent."

As a condition of being tax-exempt, of course, nonprofit entities are obligated to make their annual tax returns available for public viewing. The average joe can view most such documents at websites like www.guidestar.org. But the latest report available on Guidestar for the museum covers the 12 months leading up to July 2006, whereas Nova is current only through July 2005.

Transparency? What exactly does the museum get out of a formal alliance with Nova? For starters, storage space. At present, three out of every ten artworks from the museum's 6,000-piece permanent collection already reside at Nova's enormous Davie campus.

 The museum's executive director, Irvin Lippman, is also hopeful that Nova art teachers will eventually curate projects at the Las Olas digs. That is, once Nova actually has a visual arts program. Nova's Farquhar College plans to start offering bachelor's programs in both art and art administration this fall.

Lippman denied that the "merger" was motivated by financial need, saying the museum has been in the black since 2003. Still, Nova dwarfs the museum in financial and fundraising muscle. For the 2005-06 school year, NSU posted $469 million in revenue versus just $7.5 million in sales for the museum.

 And, no, the museum didn't bother negotiating with public universities like FAU or BCC, both of which have downtown campuses adjacent to the museum.

But, hey, it's all good.

The Piper Waits

Or maybe the sucking sound was a huge chunk of the Broward County budget flaking off, like a calving iceberg, to satisfy a liability suit.

This goes back to March 13, 1998. Christopher Thieman was late for work at the Broward Sheriff's Office. He stepped on it. He was doing 70 in a 45-mph zone when his cruiser smashed into Eric Brody's car, which was making a left turn at the intersection of Oakland Park Boulevard and 117th Lane in Sunrise.

The 18-year-old Brody, a high school student who'd hoped to become a DJ, was in a coma for six months and was left with severe incapacitating brain damage.

On December 1, 2005, a jury awarded Brody $30.6 million in damages. In a news release at the time, lawyers for Brody called it "the largest Florida jury verdict in memory penalizing a government agency."

BSO appealed, arguing that during the trial, Brody's attorneys had inappropriately summarized witness testimony and presented it on poster boards for jurors to take with them into the deliberation room. But the District Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict in November 2007, deeming the poster boards harmless. BSO pursued its beef to the Florida Supreme Court. Two weeks ago, the Robed Ones decided it would not reconsider the case — so the award to Brody stands.

But those millions are still elusive. There's a measure in place to protect taxpayers' money — it's called sovereign immunity, and it caps payments at $200,000 in cases like these in which the government has been found at fault. For victims to get any more than that, the state legislature must pass a claims bill waiving sovereign immunity and authorizing paying out the dough. In this case, BSO has claims insurance, so the money should come from the insurance company, not county coffers. That may make state legislators more likely to pass the bill next session.

Meanwhile, the spirited Brody, who is now an FAU student but severely speech-impaired and in need of long-term care, waits and waits some more — in his wheelchair. Lance Block, one of Brody's many attorneys, who have worked on the case for a decade without seeing a dime, thinks it's about time the case came to a close: "It's been ten years of BSO B.S."

Bless This Ground

On a recent sun-kissed Sunday, gospel glitterati gathered from near and far to bless the ground in Lauderhill where a long-awaited gospel complex is to be built. There was Black Entertainment Television gospel star Bobby Jones, decked out in a lime-green pinstriped suit. And Albertina Walker, sitting in a wheelchair but looking sublimely regal in a white suit (living up to her moniker as "The Queen of Gospel"). Both Jones and Walker are on the board of the complex.

Broward politicos, black and white, turned out for the event, as did local black preachers like Pastor Mack King Carter, who prayed in his deliciously gravelly voice for the ground where the $60-million complex should be completed in 2010 to be made holy. Even Betty Osceola, of the Seminole tribe, made the journey to request, in her native tongue, that Jesus bless the crowd and the gospel complex.

Those are some tough acts to follow.

Yet five teenaged sisters from Boynton Beach provided the most inspirational display of all. The Mays girls, ages 13 to 18, have been "ministering" through interpretive dance since 2000; they started out rehearsing in the family den (their parents are Pastor Anthony and Carla Mays of the Boynton-based Restoration House Empowerment Ministries International ) and soon were touring with gospel greats as the Chenaniah Praise Dancers.

So twirling for a few hundred people from a portable stage plunked in a field should have been no sweat, right? Clad in sparkly purple, black, and silver robes — ooh, and white gloves! — the young ladies breezed onto the stage. They'd be dancing to "I Believe I Can Fly," sung to a recording by gospel goddess Yolanda Adams (not R&B bad boy R. Kelly, who won a Grammy for his rendition of the same tune, which he wrote).

The group's choreographer, 17-year-old Ashanti, was lip-synching her heart out while her sisters flapped their arms in unison like birds in flight when, suddenly, there was complete silence — the music cut off. These gals didn't miss a beat. They kept on, in perfect coordination, executing the moves they had memorized. It wasn't the first time music has disappeared during one of their live performances, Ashanti said afterward.

That Sunday, though, a friend would come to the rescue. Eighties R&B hitmaker Shirley Murdock stepped out from behind a red velvet rope where she was sitting with other gospel bigwigs and walked calmly to the stage. The imposing Murdock, of Dayton, Ohio, had performed before with the girls, and her "spirit just leaped" watching the awkward, music-less moment.

She thought: "My babies!" Murdock grabbed a microphone and belted the last few lines of the tune, in pitch-perfect a cappella. "Come on, girls, do your thing," she beckoned. And the Mays sisters did.

The crowd stood. They clapped. They whooped. For they had just witnessed a moment of almost miraculous stage improvisation, a trope of music and dance that somehow exceeded its own conception.

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